Simple summer appetizer ideas

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Summer is almost here, and the weather is gorgeous. We enjoy the chance to spend many tranquil evenings on the porch or patio with friends and family. Plus there are holidays only a couple of weeks away, Father's Day and the Fourth of July, perfect excuses for get-togethers.

Before dinner, we like to take advantage of the longer days for an extended happy hour with a selection of yummy hors-d'oeuvres. These can be simple or lavish, depending on how much work you want to do. You could put out some chips and salsa, a cheese tray, or a platter of hummus, olives and pita.

And believe me, there's nothing wrong with that! But with just a little more effort, you can easily create some finger foods that both please the eye and satisfy the taste-buds and have your guests coming back for more.

As local summer tomatoes return to the market, I look forward to lovely caprese salads served with a fresh mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with basil from the garden. This salad can be made into an appealing hand-held appetizer by marinating tiny mozzarella balls and red and yellow cherry tomatoes, then alternating them with basil leaves on skewers, for a substantial pass-around morsel. And if you're pressed for time, you don't even have to marinate the tomatoes and cheese. Just sprinkle the skewers with a little salt and pepper, and serve.

If you'd like to get a bit fancier, I recommend using individual endive leaves as a vessel for your favorite summer filling, such as a soft goat cheese and some olive tapenade. But, for a refreshing variation, I like to combine diced apples, celery and walnuts with a little mayonnaise for an interpretation of the classic Waldorf salad.

But you may have a favorite idea of your own. The endive is sturdy enough to hold up to almost anything you choose to put on it, making it an ideal canapé.

Another simple yet seemingly fancy hors d'oeuvre is crostini. Crostini, made with a toasted slice of French bread or sourdough, can be easily heaped with store-bought dips or spread with cream cheese and pepper jelly.

But for a spectacular presentation, with just a little more effort, I highly recommend crostini spread with goat cheese and topped with fresh beets. Add a dollop of pesto creme and a pinch of microgreens, and you have created a visually stunning and unforgettable tidbit.

And finally, if you want to offer your guests a special dip, instead of store-bought hummus, why not make a batch of muhamarra. Muhamarra is a red pepper and walnut spread that hails from Lebanon and Syria but, like hummus, is enjoyed throughout the Middle East.

Once you've tried this tangy puree, you may not return to hummus again for a long while. The best news is that this recipe is easy enough to double, allowing you to divide it up and freeze half. Believe me, you'll be glad to have some on hand for your next gathering. I like to serve muhamarra with cucumber slices, but it marries equally well with pita triangles.

The important thing here is that all of these appetizers can be made ahead, with little fuss, so you can do what you do best: relax and enjoy the summer evening and the company of your guests.

MARINATED CAPRESE SKEWERS

Although I specify 18 of each ingredient, you can vary the number at will based on the number of guests and the number tomatoes and cheese balls you have. The marinade should be sufficient for anywhere from 18-36 skewers, but you can add a little more olive oil and lemon juice if need be. It also makes a delicious salad dressing.

18 yellow cherry tomatoes

18 red cherry tomatoes

18 baby mozzarella balls

18 fresh basil leaves

18 small skewers

Marinade

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

Whisk together the marinade ingredients in a nonreactive bowl, tasting as you go. Add the tomatoes and the baby mozzarella and toss to coat well. Allow to marinate at room temperature for an hour or so.

Skewer a red cherry tomato. Wrap a basil leaf around the mozzarella ball and add it to the skewer. Add a yellow cherry tomato to the skewer. Set on a platter. Repeat with remaining tomatoes, basil and mozzarella balls.

May be refrigerated up to an hour. Best if served at room temperature.

WALDORF SALAD ON ENDIVE

A surprisingly refreshing and light hors d'oeuvre. Keep the diced pieces small, so they fit nicely on the endive.

1 large Gala apple, diced

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup green or red grapes, halved

1/4 cup diced celery

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Parsley leaves (for garnish)

3-4 heads Belgian endives, separated into leaves.

Combine the apple, the walnuts, the grapes, and the celery in a bowl.

Whisk together the mayonnaise, the lemon juice, a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper. Taste for seasonings and adjust if necessary. Pour over the ingredients in the bowl. Toss well to distribute the dressing.

Spoon the mixture onto the endive leaves and arrange on a platter. Sprinkle with parsley.

Chill for at least an hour before serving.

BEET AND GOAT CHEESE CROSTINI

4 slices good quality sourdough bread, toasted and cut into quarters

2 ounces goat cheese

16 thin slices roasted beets, patted dry with paper towels

Pesto Creme (recipe below)

Microgreens (for garnish)

Pesto Creme

1/4 cup basil pesto (store-bought is fine)

1/4 cup sour cream

Combine the pesto and sour cream until well mixed. Cover and refrigerate.

To assemble the crostini:

Spread a little goat cheese on the toasts. Top with a beet slice. Spoon a small dollop of pesto creme on the beet. Sprinkle with a few micro-greens.

Place on a platter and serve. May be made an hour or two ahead.

MUHAMARRA

1 large roasted red bell pepper

3 scallions, washed, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste

1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses

(or 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar plus 1 tablespoon honey)

1 teaspoon mild or medium New Mexico red chile

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted

2 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs

Put all ingredients except bread crumbs into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse to chop roughly, then puree until creamy. Scrape down sides as needed with a spatula. When fully pureed, add the breadcrumbs, pulse to combine, and scrape down to mix all ingredients well.

Place muhamarra into a covered container and refrigerate.

Remove from the refrigerator an hour before serving. Place in a small bowl, and add some chopped parsley, a drizzle of olive oil, or a drizzle of pomegranate molasses.

Serve with cucumber and red pepper slices and toasted pita triangles.

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